Nectar down the arm

By Sarah Quigley In Books

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19th February, 2011

Cilla McQueen’s new book of poetry, The Radio Room, is deceptively small. A slim greyish volume, a wisp of a word-cloud, with one of the poet’s own drawings straggling quietly across the cover.

Yet when you open it a magic trick ensues. Poems unfold one on the other, accordion-like, growing in resonance and beauty until your hands and your head are full to overflowing. Landscapes, language, loss; geography, history, the nature of time; word-play, word-pictures, real pictures. Somehow McQueen has managed to capture the entire world and fold it between covers.

This is her 11th collection, completed during her stint as New Zealand’s current Poet Laureate – but one senses many of these poems have had a long gestation, slow-building over some years. Each is pared back and polished, reaching a state of perfect smoothness.

The natural world – stones, beaches, birds, trees – features prominently throughout the book. “One rock, another rock,” begins Altar (Elements 1): “a flat rock on top.” McQueen has a knack of stripping back the visual world to basics; only then does she build human meaning back into the poem.

One example of such poetic reduction is Tea Cup, which focuses on small domestic objects: a sugar bowl, a cup, a spoon. Yet how much emotion and how many allusions are compressed in its 10 short lines. A seemingly simple poem becomes a remarkable elegy, with luminous language and imagery redolent of life and death.

Human loss is a central theme throughout the book; glinting through the surface, then disappearing again, it is dealt with lightly but unflinchingly. Personal tributes can be tricky; in referencing a grief that’s private, the poet runs the risk of alienating a reader. Yet when McQueen remembers Hone Tuwhare, she writes so vividly and directly that we feel we’re in the room with the two friends: “Open your bright dark eyes/give precise instructions as to the location of the whisky bottle/on the kitchen shelf, and of two glasses./I bring them like a lamb./You pour a mighty dram.”

Some of the most beautiful moments occur when the subject is New Zealand, as in Ripples, with imagery so strong it almost smokes off the page: “In the middle distance, wind-burned iron roofs chafed by macrocarpa.” The lengthy poem Reprise laments the changes to our once untouched landscape, scarred by “damming, excavation, human/habitation, subdivision, pylons/pipelines, sewage ponds and cow-piss”.

In the face of loss – human, natural, temporal – McQueen finds salvation in language. Often her work is about artistic endeavour itself: the desire to freeze time, the realisation this is impossible. In Hand likens the act of writing to an almost unconscious process: “A shoulder-twitch/sends nectar down the arm.” Yet the poet is simultaneously aware of recording only “the meantime”. Bellbirds sing their “green glass song”, raindrops blur the page – and the moment is already, almost literally, fading.

The extraordinary ending to Wash is a perfect example of language mirroring its subject matter. Here the lines themselves begin to disintegrate, tearing like paper in the rain. Fragmented phrases – “damp translucent skin”, “translation and thin”, “fragile”, “nerve”, “bruise” – echo McQueen’s preoccupations with ageing, endings and seasonal cycles. The poem concludes inexorably yet gently with the words “vanished intimacies”.

Such a clear-eyed acceptance of transitoriness resonates through The Radio Room, booming and receding, singing, keening. This is an extraordinary book, combining the bravura and passion of a born poet with the wisdom and tenderness of an experienced one. Reprise opens with the query “Who are we now, who were we anyway?” McQueen, with her incisive, sensitive poems, comes as close as anyone can to answering the unanswerable.

THE RADIO ROOM, by Cilla McQueen (Otago, $30).

19th February, 2011

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